One overarching question confronts voters in the Fourth Congressional District: How big a chance are they willing to take on a rather untested member of the latest generation of Kennedys? While Joseph Kennedy III carries the most formidable surname in Massachusetts Democratic politics, it’s hard to imagine any other 32-year-old Middlesex County assistant district attorney being treated as a prohibitive favorite for the seat being vacated by liberal icon Barney Frank. Moreover, Kennedy has a strong Republican opponent in 37-year-old Sean Bielat, a Marine reservist and former tech executive who made an energetic showing two years ago against Frank — and whose experience, education, and enthusiasm for public service are in some ways similar to Kennedy’s.
But voters who believe that Frank’s values, issue positions, and tireless advocacy served his district and the country well should take a chance on Kennedy. He has natural political gifts that make up for his inexperience, and voters can feel confident he will grow into an effective advocate for the district.
The 4th District covers an arc from Brookline to Hopkinton and then extends southward toward Fall River. While it includes some of Boston’s wealthiest suburbs and some tech-heavy towns along Interstate 495, it also takes in areas at the very outer edge of Boston’s economic orbit whose economic prospects seem less certain. If Kennedy’s decision to move into the district to run for Congress speaks to a certain level of family entitlement, he makes it clear he wants to win the race on shoe leather. For months, he has been assiduously knocking on doors in the 4th and hearing out the concerns of its voters. He speaks intelligently about concerns from economic development in the struggling city of Taunton to transportation in wealthy, suburban Wellesley.
Kennedy’s stances are more firmly developed on national issues, where he takes a standard array of Democratic positions. He supports the Affordable Care Act and federal investments in clean-energy initiatives. More flexibility would be an asset: Kennedy opposes any change to the retirement age as a way of keeping Social Security solvent, even though minor adjustments to benefits should be part of any serious effort at deficit reduction. But Kennedy, whose commitment to building a more just society is practically in his DNA, will have the political leeway to make the compromises necessary to maintain a safety net now without short-changing future generations.
Kennedy’s skills are impressive. He shows a sunnier, more easygoing manner than his father, former US Representative Joseph Kennedy II, and has a steadier presence than other recent candidates from his family. He speaks movingly of his time in as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. When he talks about non-ideological issues, such as how residents of wary towns might be persuaded to permit the construction of new housing, it’s easy to imagine him playing the role of a conciliator on some intractable issues.
Not everyone, clearly, will be inclined to give Kennedy the benefit of the doubt. And for more conservative voters who want a clean break with the state’s political past, Sean Bielat represents a solid choice. To Bielat’s credit, he’s declined — at least in this campaign — to sign Grover Norquist’s no new taxes pledge. He’s put forth some unusual ideas about overhauling the nation’s retirement system, such as by raising the cap on how much of a taxpayer’s income is subject to the Social Security payroll tax but, in exchange, allowing individuals to keep a small percentage of their taxes.
Still, it’s not entirely clear how moderate or conservative Bielat would be if elected. He’s been reluctant to elaborate much on his stances on social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage. He argues that these matters aren’t likely to come before Congress. But that’s not quite true; Congress might soon be asked to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, a move Bielat would oppose. Unlike Sixth District GOP candidate Richard Tisei, a moderate with years of experience on Beacon Hill, Bielat simply doesn’t have enough of a public record for voters to know what kind of congressman he’d be.
There needs to be a place in government in Massachusetts for someone with Bielat’s credentials. Yet in this race between two relative newcomers, it’s Kennedy whose skills and views are most needed in today’s Congress.